Monday, March 28, 2011

The Parable of the Five Gorillas

This is a story I’ve heard in several forms.

A scientist, according to the story, did an experiment with five gorillas housed in a cage. The scientist hung a bunch of bananas in the cage where the gorillas could not reach them. Then a large tree branch was put up against the wall close to the bananas. One gorilla figured out that he could climb the branch and reach the bananas. But, just as it was about to grab them, the scientist drenched all the gorillas with cold, frigid water. There was chaos. Later, the same gorillas tried to get to the bananas. Again, the scientist covered them with cold water. This went on several more times until at least one of the gorillas made the connection between reaching for the bananas and the cold water.

At the next attempt, that gorilla attacked the one who was trying to get the bananas. The others joined in when it became clear that reaching for the bananas caused the water to start. After that, none of the gorillas tried to get the bananas.

Later, the scientist took out one of the gorillas and included a new one that had not seen what was going on in the cage. As you might think, the new gorilla tried to get the bananas. Of course, the other gorillas attacked it when it tried to do so. They managed to stop it before the water started. It learned not to try to get the bananas. The scientist then removed another of the original gorillas and included a new one. Well, the process repeated itself, including the first new gorilla joining in the attack, even though it did not know why.

The scientist removed the original gorillas one by one, replacing them with a new gorilla every time. Each time the reaction was the same. The new gorilla was attacked when they tried to get the bananas. Eventually, all the original gorillas were replaced. All this time, none of the new gorillas had been sprayed with water. Even though they did not know why, all the replacement gorillas kept attacking the new gorilla every time they tried to get the bananas.

Why? Well, they had all learned, “That’s how we do things around here. That’s how it’s always been done.”

Does that sound like your organization? A leader and potential leaders should determine why people do things the way they do. Maybe there was a good reason at the time or maybe it was just what somebody decided a long, long time ago and it may not be applicable now.

The Paralysis of Uncertainty and the FAQ Office

As I have commented before, having too many choices can be paralyzing. Uncertainty is another state of mind that can lead to paralysis.

You’ve heard this phrase countless times, a lot more lately it seems: In these uncertain times... I get the unstated threat in that statement. You don’t know what’s coming. It could be good, but don’t count on it, the ad implies. It more than likely will be bad for you, the ad seems to be saying. I get that.

But, where does that sense of foreboding come from? Currently, it seems to be coming from a number of areas: government budget cuts (at all levels) that may impact government employees and the businesses that service those government agencies. It comes from businesses going through difficult times. It comes from the potential for nuclear fallout. It comes from the growing turmoil all over the world. It comes from the growing turmoil in our political environment. It comes from, well, from whatever it is that is bothering you.

Your office or organization is likely going through some uncertainty. The danger is that uncertainty can lead to paralysis. Not knowing, for example, whether you will have a job in six months, some people are paralyzed, unable to really focus and do their work. Why does this happen? Likely, this is an information gap, oftentimes fueled by rumors.

For example, government employees are being threatened with layoffs across the board. The threat is not overt. It is implied as administrators are absorbed with looming budget cuts without really knowing how much their budgets are being cut. Employees want administrators to tell them if their jobs will be safe, but the administrators can’t tell their employees what they don’t know, hence the uncertainty. As a result, there’s a lot of rumors that sound like this: “I heard that they’re going to cut _____________ (insert the latest rumored target).”

This is where good leadership needs to step in and address the rumors. Actually, this something that good leadership should always do, regardless of what the business environment is like. Every organization should have an FAQ/Rumors Office to address these issues. Obviously, some things can’t be known until things like budgets get settled. But, you can tell people how you are planning to respond, possible scenarios and options for employees. The worst you can do is not tell people anything. Your silence seems to reinforce rumors and fears. And the paralysis sets in, dragging down motivation and productivity, all adding to the downward spiral of the organization.

Your FAQ/Rumors Office (FRO) doesn’t have to be a large office. It can be one person who can answer questions or just develop an FAQ sheet to address the current uncertainty. You may not be able to answer all the questions and fears, but you can try to limit the paralysis. In some cases, if your FRO does it well, it could actually spur motivation and productivity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Living life to the fullest

There seems, to me, to be quite a lot being written about living life to the fullest. My first thought when I hear that is of someone going full throttle for 22 hours, sleeping a few minutes and then going off on an adventure to the Andes, all the while running a business through their smart phone and meeting people way more fabulous than anyone I have ever met.

I thought about that. What would “living my life to the fullest” mean? Would that mean that I would be running off to SXSW to mingle with all these alternative bands, hanging out at bars till dawn, talking about new Internet-based models for the music industry? Sounds neat.

No, it doesn’t sound neat for me. Maybe for someone else, but not for me.
What would living life to the fullest really mean to me? Honestly, it would be a mix of many things, but it likely would not be about that full-throttle feel that many people tend to give to the idea of living life to the fullest.

Perhaps it’s a function of age and what life means to me, perhaps it’s just a different perspective/personality. What is exciting to me and interesting is different from what others find interesting and exciting. I enjoy being with my family. A family vacation is fulfilling, so is a good dinner or bbq with them. My book sale is thrilling. Playing with my granddaughter is more fun than climbing a mountain and certainly more enjoyable to me than hanging out in a bar till five in the morning.

As much as I am sure that looking out over the beach on a small Caribbean island is magical and awe-inspiring, it does not hold my attention as much as looking at the bench I just finished building.

Living life to the fullest should not necessarily be about the speed of living but about enjoying the moments. For leaders, that means enjoying the experience and not necessarily with the intensity and speed of leadership.

In the end, however, one has to decide what living life to the fullest means to them. What does it mean to you?